Bing Crosby was that rare combination of superstar and visionary. He pioneered mass media self-expression at the infancy of electrical recording, network radio, and "talking pictures." In the mid-1940s, he further transformed these technologies by spearheading the development of magnetic tape, which hastened multitrack recording, a turning point in our popular culture.
Bing was also keen on finding innovative types of accompaniments. In particular, he was a champion of the guitar, and helped to establish its prominence and appeal. He had an ear for the sound and the rhythm, and an empathy for the individual spirit of the players with whom he frequently worked—icons such as Carl Kress, Bobby Sherwood, Perry Botki, Eddie Condon, Dave Barbour, Vince Terri, and, of course, Les Paul.
Always ahead of the curve, Bing even helped to create a vogue for the Hawaiian steel guitar in the late 1930s through his many best-selling recordings with authentic practitioners such as Lani McIntyre and Sam Koki. Extending into the '60s, Bing relied upon "Wrecking Crew" members Bill Pitman, Barney Kessel, and Glen Campbell for his country western album, and sang with Jose Feliciano on his 1968 TV special. In the '70s, Bing toured extensively with a jazz quartet that included Johnny Smith.
All of Bing's guitar accompanists helped him to deliver impeccable performances. Likewise, he gave each of them a platform where there could shine. However, none of these collaborations had the profound impact upon him as did his relationship with Eddie Lang, deemed the "Father of Jazz Guitar."
During a woefully cut-short five-year span, this wizard was Bing's musical guru, an inspiration who spurred him on to ever-increasing peaks. Bing, an essentially private man, felt blessed to have such a singularly trusted confidant. The feeling was mutual and their interwoven destinies constitute one of the most remarkable relationships in American popular music, which has not received full documentation until now.
Strands of Fate
"Looking back, life contained mixed colors, some light, some dark." — Bing Crosby, in his 1953 memoir, Call Me Lucky.
Harry Lillis Crosby was born in 1903 in Tacoma, Washington. When he was three, his family moved to Spokane. Bing, so nicknamed because of his devotion to a comic strip called The Bingville Bugle, developed into an irrepressible singer who consumed almost every record that made its way into the local music store. During the early 1920s, he formed a band, The Musicaladers, with his partner-in-song, Al Rinker. Bing also indulged his passion for drumming with the combo. Al had a sister, a promising jazz singer known as Mildred Bailey then making a name for herself in Los Angeles. Her success prompted the boys to follow suit. In 1926, Bailey wrangled for them an audition with Paul Whiteman, leader of the world's most popular dance orchestra. Their snappy singing and refreshing scatting impressed the impresario, affectionately known as "Pops," who hired them on the spot. Now Bing's luck grew rapidly, as he gained experience working with the legendary virtuosi whom "Pops" employed during his tenure with the band, among them Frankie "Tram" Trumbauer, Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Lennie Hayton, Roy Bargy, Matty Malneck, Joe Venuti, and, most especially, Eddie Lang.
Above: An early press shot of Bing Crosby and Eddie Lang.
Eddie Lang was born Salvatore Massaro in Philadelphia in 1902, the youngest of seven children. When he was ten years old, his father, a stringed-instrument manufacturer, gave him a homemade miniature guitar constructed from a cigar box. From then on, his future was set. As a teenager, Salvatore followed the example of many children of Italian immigrants of the time and anglicized his name, adopting that of a local basketball hero.
Acclaimed guitarist Marty Grosz is an authority on all-things Lang. In a correspondence, Marty describes Eddie's musical upbringing: "Lang, as well as Venuti, both knew the solfeggio scale and both studied violin in the Philadelphia school system. Venuti claimed that it was a toss-up as to who would take up the guitar and who would continue on violin. Lang would have to have known how to read to manage the other string players. No doubt, Lang doubled on violin in order to increase his pay. Eddie was also a sensational banjo player."
In his autobiography, Call Me Lucky, first published in 1953, Bing offered his insights into Eddie's genius: "Eddie had had only the sketchiest kind of education. When I asked him how long he had gone to school, he would say, 'What's school?' He was quiet and retiring but the things he did, he did superlatively well. If he had studied the guitar, I do not know whether he would have been a better or worse player. Maybe if he had gotten involved with the technique of playing and following musical manuscripts he might not have played with the dexterity and the freedom and the good taste, which came instinctively to the natural musician who plays by ear.
"In the opinion of all the guitar players of his day and many since, he was the greatest one of the craft who ever lived. Eddie could read little music, but he played with all the big radio and recording orchestras. Once he heard an arrangement rehearsed, he was not only able to play the guitar part of that arrangement, but decorate it a bit. The next time they ran through the number, he was solid as a rock. He was the first fellow to do much single-string guitar solo work on recordings and dance jobs. Single string means picking the melody out on one string and hitting a chord occasionally to maintain a rhythm."
Grosz fine tunes the definition: "'Single string' is just that. Single string with chordal punctuations is what it is. 'Stride' accompaniment is where the bass note is struck on the first and third beats, and the chord is struck on the second and fourth beats. Variations are common. This is in imitation of 'stride piano.'"
In fact, Eddie demonstrated the guitar's potential as an alternative to the more accepted piano accompaniment.
Eddie was one of the busiest sidemen of the 1920s, and attracted attention in jazz circles for his ubiquitous freelance work, as well as for playing with the bands of Trumbauer, Adrian Rollini, Jean Goldkette, and Roger Wolfe Kahn. He had won renown for playing with The Mound City Blue Blowers. While with them in London in 1924, Eddie thrilled his audiences. Maestro of the comb Red McKenzie, who founded the group, was one of the first white male singers to differentiate himself from the effete tenors of the era. In this regard, he pointed the way to Bing. "Deep 2nd Street Blues," waxed by The Blue Blowers on December 10, 1924, features a passage from Eddie that aficionados consider one of the very first guitar solos recorded in the blues idiom.
In Call Me Lucky, Bing cited the influence of The Blue Blowers as he was augmenting his vocal skills in the mid-1920s: "I'd worked up a way of singing that people were calling 'individual.' At times, I used a kazoo, sticking it into a tin can and moving it in to and out to get a trombone effect in a trick I lifted from The Mound City Blue Blowers. It gave out a wah-wahing sound I thought jazzy."
In a few years, Bing would cross paths with the ensemble's most illustrious alumnus, and their careers and lives became entwined.
Life with "The King of Jazz"
"I first met Eddie Lang when Al Rinker and I joined The Pops Whiteman family in San Francisco. His work on the guitar won me from the start." —Bing Crosby, DownBeat, 1939
Bing's enlistment in Whiteman's band coincided with the advent of the microphone. He instinctively understood how to take advantage of the invention's capabilities, and he deftly applied it as an instrument to produce an intimate connection with his listeners. Eddie similarly had been utilizing the microphone to help create and amplify a jazz vocabulary for the guitar when Whiteman hired him, along with Venuti, in 1927 for work on selected recordings. From time to time, Whiteman called upon Carl Kress when Eddie was unavailable. Since the band was in San Francisco during June of that year, it may be safe to conclude this is when Bing initially made Eddie's acquaintance.
These formative years would occasionally see Bing making records with other orchestras. One of these may have been Bing's very first endeavor with Eddie. Crosby discographer John McNicholas, mastermind of the mammoth Jonzo Records Chronologic Crosby series, asserts in his liner notes for Volume 2: 1927-28 that "Mississippi Mud," recorded in New York on January 20, 1928 with Trumbauer's band, "was Bing's first recording with the great jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, an association that would develop into a great friendship."
Band leader and Lang expert Glenn Crytzer suggests otherwise: "On the 'Tram' record, it doesn't really sound like Eddie's playing to me — there's no moving lines happening and at that tempo I wouldn't expect to hear Lang just chunking out chords. I'd also expect the guitar to be louder if it were Eddie, as Bing liked to have Eddie right behind him. The highly regarded Brian Rust Dance Band Discography indicates Carl Kress so that's probably a good bet. [Adding to the uncertainty, Rust's Jazz Records 1897-1942 lists Eddie] It would be helpful and interesting to hear the unissued 'From Monday On' from that date. Lang was in town, he played a session the next day with a different band, so I'm not sure why he wouldn't be on that session. Maybe he was contracted for a show and had a conflict? Who knows?"
Grosz most emphatically agrees: "This is clearly a four-string instrument on 'Mississippi Mud,' not Lang's 6-string. Furthermore, there are none of Eddie's aural characteristics. It's definitely Kress."
The debate underlines Eddie's inimitable style that set him apart from his contemporaries. Regardless, discerning enthusiasts may decide this conundrum for themselves. There is no denying the roar of Beiderbecke's cornet. Meanwhile, the soft accents from the guitar cushion Matty Malneck's violin accompaniment to Bing's sparkling reprise of a tune that he popularized the previous year with co-Rhythm Boys Rinker and pianist/composer Harry Barris.
There is also no doubt that a little more than a year later, on January 29, 1929, Eddie and Bing did converge in a New York recording studio, this time with The Dorsey Brothers Band. One of the selections at that session was "Spell of the Blues," which heralds Eddie's idiosyncratic rhythm that would come to characterize Bing's subsequent outings with him.
"Spell of the Blues"
That March, Bing made his first solo recordings away from a full orchestra. These two Columbia sides, which featured the well-regarded guitarist Ed "Snoozer" Quinn, made an impression with the public, so a second set was in order. For this May 24, 1929 session, Bing summoned Eddie, while keeping Roy Bargy on piano and Matty Malneck on violin. Listen to how Bing glides through "Baby, Oh Where Can You Be?" Eddie's support encourages Bing to let loose with his soon-to-become signature humming, scatting and whistling.
"Baby, Oh Where Can You Be?"
Eddie and Joe Venuti rejoined "Pops" on May 19, 1929. This time they stayed for a year. The Incredible Crosby by jazz scholar Barry Ulanov recounts the changing of the guard occurring within the Whiteman organization at this time: "In 1929, Bix left the Whiteman organization, and his book was taken over by Andy Secrest, a cornetist of pleasing sweet tone, but not of Bix’s stature. However, the loss of this fine soloist was in part made up by the addition of Joe Venuti on violin and Eddie Lang on guitar. The one, an irrepressible Italian from Philadelphia, brought jazz ingenuity on an instrument that had hardly ever before been noted for it. The other, a quiet little man, also from Philadelphia, was an old friend of Bing’s who had moved from the violin to the banjo to the guitar and had literally made that at last an instrument in jazz. He brought it to such prominence in almost every band that had ever played in and around New York that it became a fixture in the dance band, as the banjo had been before."
Whiteman could barely contain his enthusiasm when writing about this period in the May 1939 issue of DownBeat that commemorated Eddie: "He played with our band over a long period of time during which I had less trouble with rhythm than at any other time. I don't even know whether he could read or not. It made no difference. No matter how intricate the arrangement, Eddie played it flawlessly the first time without ever having heard it before or looking at a sheet of music. It was as if his musically intuitive spirit had read the arranger's mind and knew in advance everything that was going to happen."
For that same DownBeat issue, Whiteman's saxophone player Frankie Trumbauer contributed his technical observations on Eddie's participation in Whiteman's aggregation: "His musical mentality could be termed a natural one, as he carried the entire Paul Whiteman library, as far as his parts were concerned, on the back of a small business card in his coat breast pocket. There would be some intricate modulations to play, and rarely in radio rehearsals would we have them to actually set these things, so Mr. Whiteman would say, 'You take the modulation, Eddie.' During the program that night, just before the modulation, the excitement of the entire band could be felt because it hadn't been rehearsed and the boys were wondering if Eddie remembered. All Eddie had was a few marks on that little card—marks that meant nothing to anyone but Eddie himself. Came the modulation, and the master played it from another world. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and from that day on, when Eddie would say 'I got it,' everyone realized he knew what he was talking about." [Grosz states that having a guitar play a two or four-bar modulation to establish a new key for a vocal was not new, although usually the pianist handled this.]
Eddie was not confining his activities to the Whiteman band. For instance, in May and October 1929, in an effort to disguise his race, and in homage to "Father of Texas Blues" Blind Lemon Jefferson, he assumed the pseudonym "Blind Eyed Willie Dunn" and recorded with the pioneering black blues guitarist, banjo player and singer, Lonnie Johnson. Music historian Dean Alger wrote about these collaborations for Guitar Player in 2014: "The ten guitar-duet recordings Johnson did with the other guitar master of the time, Eddie Lang, were historic accomplishments in popular guitar."
Their essential inspiration can be traced to Robert Johnson right down to Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
In June 1929, Eddie became part of one of the earliest nationally broadcast weekly radio programs, The Old Gold Paul Whiteman Hour, on the fledgling NBC network. Sadly, this series was not preserved. Discovering any transcriptions would be akin to locating "The Holy Grail." Contemporary radio listings indicates that on June 11, 1929, Bing sang the verse and chorus of "Moanin' Low" followed by a modulation and then full chorus by Venuti and Lang.
In addition, that June the entire Whiteman organization traveled to Hollywood to begin filming King of Jazz. Universal devised this picture to display the orchestra in all its glory, enhanced by the novelty of two-color Technicolor, a precursor to the full-fledged three-color Technicolor of a few years hence.
By now, an abiding friendship was developing between Bing and Eddie, as witnessed by an anecdote reported in The Story of Bing Crosby, penned by Bing's brother Ted. Upon hearing the news from "Pops" that the band would go to the west coast, Eddie was concerned that Bing's over-extended voice would not meet the requirements of the shoot. This conversation conveys their affinity. "Eddie said to Bing, 'How're yuh, Bing? Man, it's good to see you back. How's that gravel throat of yours?' Bing replied, 'I got four new channels, I think that Detroit fog did it.'"
Ted Crosby relayed the jovial chatter that continued on the train to California: "Eddie said, 'I sure hate to leave. Man, it's like leaving home.' Harry Barris replied, 'How do you like a guy from South Philly calling New York home?' Bing put in, 'He means White's Billiard Academy. That's home to Eddie. Where's your guitar? Let's have a little session.' As the train neared Los Angeles, Bing awoke to find Al Rinker shaking him, and Eddie Lang, in pajamas and smiles, laughing at him. 'Come on Bing, get dressed. We're just about there. Say, you must have been anxious to get to this town.' Bing grinned and stretched luxuriously. 'I guess I was meant for the tropic clime.' He nodded toward the palm trees fleeting by. 'How does that stuff look, Eddie? You'll like it.' When the news broke upon their arrival that a script was not yet ready, Eddie responded in his typical lingo. 'Man, that stops me.'
Eddie's nephew, Ed Massaro, whose father Tom Massaro managed the guitarist's career until 1926, spoke to me in the course of a lengthy telephone interview about an act of generosity from Whiteman: "He gave each band member a Ford Model A at cost from the dealership as they were about to head west for King of Jazz. There was the famous Potato-head caricature of Whiteman on the back wheel."
While in Hollywood, Joe Venuti crashed his gift en route to a band engagement. His passenger, Whiteman accordionist Mario Perry, died from his injuries. Eddie, whose steady demeanor sometimes calmed the rambunctious violinist, tried to console his friend. Mildred Bailey invited the band to her house to cheer them up—although there may have been an ulterior motive, since Bing and Rinker had long been trying to ensnare Whiteman to audition their friend who had gained them such invaluable entry a few years earlier.
Richard Sudhalter detailed the maneuver in his biography, Bix-Man and Legend: "Rinker hit on a foolproof strategy to lure Pops into a situation where it would be impossible not to hear Mildred sing. A party was the answer. Mildred and [her husband Benny] Stafford invited almost the entire Whiteman band-except its leader. 'Don't worry,' Bing Crosby confided to her on the telephone. 'He'll be there. He can't stand being left out. His curiosity'll get the better of him, wait and see.'"
As expected, "Pops" attended the soiree. With coaxing from Eddie and pianist Lennie Hayton, Mildred jumped into song, stopping Whiteman dead in mid-gulp of a drink. On August 6, Mildred made her debut on The Old Gold Hour. Thus, the wheel of fate had come full circle for Mildred, Al and Bing, abetted by Eddie's invaluable assistance.
The band languished in Hollywood until August, awaiting the final script. The intended filming never took place, since there was significant indecision over the scenario that, as originally conceived, would have a narrative structure. After several drafts, Universal abandoned the idea, and the band, in deep frustration, returned to New York, where "Pops" recorded "At Twilight" on September 6. This was the first Whiteman recording on which Bing and Eddie jointly appear. Eddie gently urges Bing's vocal, with Rinker and "sweet singer" Jack Fulton along for good measure.
The band returned to Hollywood in October to finally commence the filming of what was now a screenplay devised in the format of the "all talking, all singing, all dancing" revues then in fashion. As the Rhythm Boys say before their specialty number, this was a "super super special special production," which the Academy Award-winning sets attest to. Unfortunately, the box office receipts fell below expectations. Audiences had tired of the fad of the plotless extravaganza.
Now it was Bing's turn to encounter vehicular misfortune when he nearly drove his Model A, which was in storage during the New York hiatus, into the lobby of The Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, flapper in tow. The judge did not take kindly to Prohibition-era drinking sprees, and sentenced Bing to 60 days. An early form of "work-release" provision enabled Bing to work under escort. This accounts for his limited appearances in the film, even though Bing's vocal adorns the opening credits and The Rhythm Boys stop the show at several points.
Universal has just restored King of Jazz to its original brilliance. Two members of the restoration team, James Layton and David Pierce, have chronicled the untold story of the film's making, release, and restoration in their forthcoming book, King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue. The volume even boasts a photo of one of the gifted Model As. For more information on the book, click here.
"Meet the Boys"
(Stay tuned, for immediately following this clip there is another soundtrack scene which presents the full orchestra, including The Rhythm Boys, in the rollicking ''Happy Feet," a number recorded for Columbia on March 10, 1930.)
In Call Me Lucky, Bing articulated his appreciation for the musical affinity that flowed between Eddie and Joe Venuti: "Looking back over the years since I first broke out of the Palouse country around Spokane, I recall some outstanding things in show business, things which made lasting impressions on me. High on my personal list of memorable moments are the great duets of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang when they recorded together and when they played a specialty performance."
Two Whiteman recordings underscore their syncopated trademark interplay, as well as the rock- solid support they afforded Bing. One is "If I Had a Talking Picture of You," recorded October 16, 1929.
"If I Had a Talking Picture of You"
The other is "After You've Gone," recorded for Columbia on October 18, 1929. Both of these jaunty dance arrangements were cut at the brink of the Stock Market Crash.
"After You've Gone"
Bing's unique husky tone and increasing self-confidence so evident on these recordings were attracting legions of fans, many of whom did not even know his name. After all, "with vocal refrain" was his only mention on the labels of his Whiteman records. Bing was itching to go solo. At the same time, his self-defined youthful indiscretions were taking a toll on his relationship with Whiteman.
In his autobiography, Bing remembered getting into an argument over a bootlegging bill. This led to a scolding from his boss: "You don't seem to be too serious. You're just having a good time touring and living off the fat of the land and getting arrested and costing me money. We'll part friends and that will be the end of it."
Bing amicably departed the band in the spring of 1930. In about a month's time Both Eddie and Joe Venuti also bade goodbye to "Pops."
Wanting to stay on the west coast, The Rhythm Boys signed with Gus Arnheim's Orchestra, which broadcast nightly from The Cocoanut Grove in The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Bing's solos grabbed lots of attention and made him the band's stellar attraction. A dispute with the management at The Grove led to the break-up of the trio in May 1931. By now, Bing was making records under his own name and starring in popular shorts made for "King of Comedy" Mack Sennett. He was also about to embark on his illustrious radio career and personal appearance tours throughout the country. Soon, Eddie would be devoting much of his time and his energies nurturing the meteoric star.
Together On the Air
"Eddie had everything to do with the radio show, but he also took a great deal of responsibility for Bing as a person, Bing as a singer, Bing as someone who could be a front man for the music that Lang loved." —Barry Ulanov, The Incredible Crosby
As he travelled to New York to audition at radio stations, Bing was determined to secure Eddie, whose services were always in demand by singers, a point that Grosz accentuates: "Lang made numerous recordings backing singers, both before and after meeting Bing. Some of these recordings have tasty, ingenious accompaniments, just as accomplished and interesting as those he recorded behind Bing. Some of these vocalists were composer/pianist Rube Bloom, The Ponce Sisters, and the oddly named Alma Rotter."
Bing tasked his Brother Everett, his most savvy agent, to persuade the guitarist. Everett had office space in the New York headquarters of preeminent music publisher Irving Mills, located in the landmark Brill Building. Eddie and Joe Venuti would use this space to rehearse.
In this extended section from his book, Ted Crosby unfolded the details that culminated in a pivotal event in his brother's career: "Bing said, 'You've got to find Eddie.' 'What do you want Eddie for?' Everett asked. 'To accompany me on guitar. Eddie's the best. And he knows how I should sing. The studios will furnish an orchestra to play for me at the auditions, but I want Eddie right alongside me at the mic.' They found Eddie that afternoon and he greeted them joyfully. 'Sure, I’ll be glad to play for you, Bing,' he said. 'But one of us better learn to read music. You'll make it all right. These networks are dying for somebody with a different style. How about coming up to my place some night and wrestling with some spaghetti?' Everett went alone to the offices of the broadcasting companies and arranged for the auditions, and two days later he took Eddie and Bing to the studios. When they had finished, Eddie was enthusiastic. 'You've got it, Bing. Better than you ever were with Paul. That Boo-Boo-Boo has got to get it.' Soon thereafter Everett secured an agreement with CBS. He broke the news to Bing and Eddie upon their return from playing golf. They arrived drenched in their golf clothes and parched with thirst. The news had the effect of a grenade, stunning them. Bing gulped as a broad smile grew on Eddie's face.
"The next day Bing's work began. His first appearance was to be on Monday, and it was already midweek. Bing felt he must have Eddie at his elbow with his steady, full guitar accompaniment. The interesting figures Eddie devised between vocal phrases would be a great help. But Eddie's artistry was appreciated in other circles also. He had three programs nightly, and as Bing went on the air at 7 pm., it seemed impossible for Eddie to work out a schedule that would allow him to play for Bing. Eddie was willing to make a financial sacrifice by giving up the other shows, but Bing refused to hear of this. He really felt his program might last but a couple of weeks at most, and it seemed silly for Eddie to give up something permanent and definite for a job that was only temporary.
"After much political boondoggling and juggling of schedules, it was finally straightened around so that Eddie could make Bing's show but not the rehearsals. 'Looks like you'll have to learn to read at last, Eddie,' Bing told him. 'Nope,' said Eddie. 'Too late now. I'd get mixed up between
reading and faking and run into a blind switch sure.' Freddie Rich was the leader of the house orchestra at Columbia at the time, and it was agreed Eddie could look over the songs on the day of the show, familiarize himself with them and jump into the program at 7 pm."
Victor Young, who at Bing's behest would conduct the orchestra during the actual broadcast, assembled an impressive roster of musicians. Young's schematic included placing Eddie directly behind Bing in order to intensify his rhythmic backing and situating Venuti by his side, the better to supply obbligato. Manny Klein, The Dorsey Brothers, and future Bob Hope sidekick Jerry Colonna (on trombone) were among the other players hired for this assignment. There was also the soon-to-be famous clarinet player and bandleader Artie Shaw, who in later on would call Bing the first hip white person born in the United States.
Excitement mounted as the August 31, 1931 debut of Fifteen Minutes with Bing Crosby approached. There was much anxiety at CBS when news came that Bing had to cancel. Was he hungover? Was he nervous? The mundane truth was that he had contracted laryngitis while rehearsing within the novelty of an air-conditioned studio. Three days hence, on September 2, Bing broadcast his highly anticipated show.
In his authorized biography, simply entitled Bing, Charles Thompson wrote of his subject's nervousness that night: "With knees visibly shaking and sweat on his forehead, Bing stood before the CBS microphone with one hand resting hopefully on guitarist Eddie Lang's shoulder."
The selections were three already-established Crosby hits: 'I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cents Store,' 'Just One More Chance.' and 'I'm Through with Love.' This final entry contains a sensational Venuti/Lang instrumental break. The show was a tremendous success and catapulted Bing into the big leagues.
Bing's fame steadily increased as his daily sustaining CBS show continued without a sponsor. Then, on Nov. 2, The American Tobacco Company, realizing a winning bet, began picking up the tab in order to advertise its cigar line. For the next four months, until Feb. 27, 1932 the fifteen-minute Bing Crosby - The Cremo Singer broadcast six nights a week from New York. After a few weeks off, Bing went back to a sustaining unsponsored daily program, which ended on August 6, 1932. With this daily workload, Bing widened his repertoire while honing his formidable chops, under the spell of Eddie's masterful accompaniment. Sadly, hardy any of these shows survive.
Variety reviewed the episode of July 12: "With a new corking musical background, Bing Crosby was at his best over WABC from a Hollywood pick-up after being off the air for many weeks. He had Eddie Lang (unannounced) effectively getting in some telling innings with that mean guitar while Lennie Hayton's nifty piano-ologing manifested itself brilliantly in an excellent orchestral background."
On The Road
"When we were on tour, Eddie was my accompanist. He came on stage with me and sat beside me, cradling his guitar as if it were a loved bambino. We did most of our songs with just that guitar. Occasionally, we let the pit orchestra violins sneak in at the finish or maybe we'd use them in the middle of the song for support. But basically my accompaniment was Eddie's guitar." —Bing Crosby, Call Me Lucky
With his radio program in full swing, Bing made plans to set out on a national schedule of personal appearances. Ted Crosby detailed the goal and strategy: "Everett had his sights on Hollywood and a feature picture for Bing, and he devised a tour. Bing appeared at the New York Paramount, then appeared at The Brooklyn Paramount and returned to the New York house. Now he was ready for the road, and Everett had his road work lined up for him—a tour of personal appearances at leading theaters in the East. Bing agreed, with the condition that Eddie Lang go with him to continue his flawless accompaniment on the guitar. Leaving behind the lights of Broadway which had witnessed his meteoric rise to radio fame, Bing started on the road, accompanied by his wife Dixie, Lang, and Everett and his wife.
This extended tour would deepen Bing's dependence upon Eddie, a situation reinforced by the decision to seat the guitarist on a high stool alongside the singer in order for them to both share the microphone. The succession of highly publicized performances also accelerated the trend then underway of guitarists accompanying musical personalities. Some, such as Nick Lucas and Cliff Edwards (aka "Ukulele Ike") supplied their own backing. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Bing's constant public teamwork with Eddie beamed a bright spotlight on what was then an unfamiliar manner of accompaniment. The limelight they helped spark would exponentially spread in the years to come.
Bing chose his stalwart pianist Lennie Hayton as musical director. Hayton would lead the pit orchestras at the various theaters along the route. Biographer Barry Ulanov indicated just how much the normally taciturn Bing took Eddie into his confidence: "'A moody man,' Bing summed up Lennie to another dark-eyed, soft-voiced musician, Eddie Lang. 'A brooder, but a considerable musician, or should I say and a musician?'"
Bing's attempts to incorporate Joe Venuti and Jimmy Dorsey into the road mix were to no avail.
In his biography, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years 1903-1940, jazz historian Gary Giddins delineated the underpinnings of the traveling partnership: "In theaters, Bing was backed by Eddie Lang, sitting at his right elbow, sharing a microphone, steadying him with strumming chords, leading him with arpeggios, pacing him with lissome yet resolute accompaniment. They looked out for each other on and off stage. By now, Eddie was using a Gibson L-5, having switched over from the L-4 in late 1928."
Alan Cary, a Lang disciple who currently plays with Michael Arenella's Dreamland Orchestra, outlined the master's treatment of his instrument: "Another jazz guitar pioneer named John Cali told me in 1969 that Eddie owned six Gibson L-5s, which he strung with very heavy gauge strings for the beefy tone he favored in the 1920s. A guitar so strung would last only a couple of years, and he would repeat the procedure with another guitar. An article in Acoustic Guitar magazine about ten years ago confirms Cali's account by specifying the gauges Lang used. Don't use those gauges unless you can afford to go through a guitar every couple of years. Notice that Lang changed to a lighter touch when the Depression came, and the change may have been not just because a less vigorous, more placid style of music came into fashion. Maybe he didn't like the destruction he was causing. Contrast this with Carl Kress, who got a lighter sound than Lang by using lighter-gauge strings and striking them farther from the bridge. On this and his other recordings of 1927 and 1928, Kress seems to be playing either a 4-string tenor guitar or a 6-string guitar, but ignoring the two bass strings."
Marty Grosz has a different take on gauge durability: "I have guitar strings with heavy gauge strings that have held together for twenty years!"
Grosz adds that playing close to the bridge gives a more piercing tone. The farther away from the bridge the more "mellow" the tone.
Eddie would definitely have needed to marshal his L5, considering his exhaustive broadcast schedule, and, most especially, the all-consuming travel agenda on the immediate horizon with Bing. Incidentally, Ed Massaro told me that he has sold one of these prized studio "boxes" to a private collector in San Diego.
Record-breaking alternating engagements at The Paramount Theaters in New York and Brooklyn launched the itinerary with a bang. For six months in the two boroughs, from Nov. 10, 1931 to April 7, 1932, the two men were a sensation, foreshadowing the pandemonium stirred by Frank Sinatra ten years later. My mother, who waited on a long line to see the show at The Brooklyn venue, remembered how casual and unassuming Bing was, especially while singing with Eddie. After a guest appearance at a monthly meeting of The Press Club in Buffalo in May, they travelled to Chicago that same month for a week at The Oriental Theater. Dates in Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis enlarged their following. California beckoned, making the live duo a bi-coastal triumph. One week at The Fox Theater in San Francisco garnered this notice in the September 13 issue of Variety: "More than his own singing, Crosby also gave ‘em the ace guitaring of Eddie Lang, who accompanied him on all tunes."
Here is an eyewitness account from a buff who attended a show during another weeklong stint at The Fox Theater in Oakland: "Eddie Lang was with him and was his sole musical accompaniment. I will always consider it one of the privileges of my life to have seen and heard Eddie Lang, as well as Bing. They really went together like salt and pepper."
October found them doing one-night stands at The Fox Theaters in Pomona and Riverside, before retuning east for a Thanksgiving week stay at The Carmen Theater in Eddie's home town of Philadelphia.
Bing and Eddie's next stop lasted from December 2-8, topping the bill of a movie-variety show at New York's Capitol Theater. Variety reviewed the act in the issue of December 6: "Crosby was in good voice Friday night, baritoning his way over easily. He’s carrying a guitarist whose swell strumming detracts at first but eventually helps out the Crosby singing."
Bob Hope, Bing's future Road To co-star, was the emcee, making this their first public appearance together. A silent home movie miraculously preserves a few priceless moments from this stay at The Capitol. There is a fragment of Bing and Bob doing their "two orchestra leaders who meet on the street" routine in front of the curtain. There is also a snippet showing the comedian exiting stage left after introducing Bing, leaving him in front of the orchestra alongside the standing carbon mic, as a bemused Eddie, with his Gibson, sits directly behind the singer. This, the only extant visual documentation of Bing live on stage with Eddie, appears in Bing Crosby Rediscovered, produced in 2014 for the PBS series, American Masters.
During that week, on December 5, the only known recording of Eddie's voice took place during a break while accompanying "America's Sweetheart of Song," Ruth Etting in her two-reeler film, A Regular Trouper. The discussion partially references the previous night at The Capitol Theater. In addition to Etting, the other voices belong to Etting's husband/manager Norman "The Gimp" Snider, (famously portrayed by James Cagney in Etting's film biography, Love Me or Leave Me) and music director Victor Young. There is also an unidentified participant. This rare audio clip, released on the Dutch label Granny Records (Grannyphone 03318), offers a glimpse into Eddie's approach to rehearsal, as he riffs while getting directions from Young. The sound bite also captures the flavor of that bygone stop at The Capitol.
Eddie Lang Talks
"Eddie liked to take in 'the spots,' and, lucky for me, he had good sense and saved me from many a jam. And I don't mean music session. Naturally, when I got into a musical solo spot, it was a great comfort to have such an artist with me. Eddie made me do my best when the break came, and I gave him full credit." —Bing Crosby, DownBeat, 1939
Concurrent with Bing and Eddie's intensive regimen of broadcast and personal appearances was a roster of recordings made for Brunswick Records. The records were released hands over fist, thanks to the enormous popularity that Bing was now enjoying, principally due to his warm and confidential use of the microphone. With each successive recording, his assurance grows and his expressiveness grows. Eddie's symbiotic relationship with Bing enabled him to provide the proper support for each individual song, encouraging refinements of nuance and shading.
Here are several examples from this early period of Bing's solo discography. They exemplify a special kinship.
"Where The Blue of The Night"—recorded November 23, 1931—would soon become Bing's radio theme song. Eddie's understated guitar work helps to fashion an irresistibly nostalgic aura.
On "How Long Will It Last," recorded in New York on February 16, 1932, Eddie's melancholy guitar is set against the blues accents of Tommy Dorsey's trombone during the break from Bing's dusky romantic chorus. Their interaction inspires Bing's mournful humming, which in turn intensifies this quintessential torch song.
In stark contrast, "Sweet Georgia Brown" is a swinging excursion with Isham Jones Orchestra, recorded in Chicago on April 23, 1932. Eddie's rock solid rhythm reinforces Bing's flawless vocal and his scintillating scat chorus.
On "Lazy Day," recorded in Chicago on April 24, 1932, again with Isham Jones band, Eddie's languid and lyrical playing is in perfect harmony with Bing's laid-back performance, typified by his crystalline whistling, a feature now becoming customary on his recordings.
"Love Me Tonight," recorded in Chicago on May 26, 1932, also under Trumbauer's baton, was a rather suggestive 78 rpm aphrodisiac. Lang's concise responses to Trumbauer's insinuating C melody saxophone tempt Bing into an erotically charged mood, most notable in the phrased innuendo of the final bars.
There was electricity in the air that day in Chicago with Trumbauer's assemblage, as "Some of These Days" spectacularly proves. Eddie's muscular vamp in the very first bars promises that this is going to be an exhilarating ride as it propels Bing into an infectious tempo. A breathtaking high-wire scat chorus leads into Eddie's stylized solo turn, a rarity for him within a large band arrangement. His overall bedrock playing on this record helped to establish the platter as a jazz masterpiece.
"When I found that Eddie liked spaghetti like me, we became real friends." —Bing Crosby, DownBeat, 1939
There are many testimonials to Bing and Eddie's special relationship, such as this in Ted Crosby's book: "Eddie Lang, with his flawless ear for music and his lightning fingers on the strings of the guitar, was Bing's closest friend and one on whom he relied implicitly. Eddie could always be counted upon to see to it that every instrument in the orchestra that was to accompany Bing was being handled just right...and the strains of his guitar followed Bing's voice like a shadow."
Here is the perspective of Eddie's nephew. Ed Massaro: "Eddie was a good restraining influence on Bing. They were good friends and Eddie always helped Bing in tight spots. My uncle was a great comfort to Bing."
The two men were kindred beings, both musically and temperamentally, as Gary Giddins attests: "Lang was quiet, thoughtful, responsible, a ruminative Catholic. Eddie was one of the few people in Bing's life to get beyond the role of a jester or playmate and become a genuine confidant. He was Bing's most intimate friend, almost certainly the closest he would ever have."
Bing came to learn many facets of his pal, for instance his penchant for pool and for hustling the game. This undertaking could have posed a career-ending threat to his all-important fingers, but Eddie was always one step ahead of his competitors, as Bing explained in this extended account from Call Me Lucky: "When we'd done the first show in every new town we checked into, Eddie remarked, 'I'll be busy between now and the second show.' Then he'd visit the pool hall, case the playing there, watch them play a little. Presently he'd get in a game or two and manage to be beaten and to look as if he just fell off a load of pumpkins. The pool hall habitués would figure him a musician on tour and loose with his money. For the rest of the week between shows Eddie'd haunt the pool hall, He played it cool, building up a spot
for the melon-cutting. He let the locals win a little but when the heavy loot was riding, he turned on his 'A game' and knocked 'em in. It's my guess that he made more at pool than he did accompanying me. The natural ego of pool players (or any other kind of gambler) is good for a week's exploitation if nursed along carefully. Eddie's rivals always felt when he was knocking those balls that he was having a run of good luck.
"When Eddie played his best at billiards or pool there weren't many amateurs who could handle him. I've watched him in New York play with, and hold his own with, Ponzi and Mosconi and other greats of the pro circuit. The same applied to his card game. He had a phenomenal memory. When he took up contract bridge few he met were his masters or even his equals. He never played golf but once in a while he'd go with me to a course, pick up a putter, and lick the pants off of me on the putting green. He was what you'd call a real handy fellow. Joe Venuti was considerably better with the bow than with the cue. He thought he could shoot pool like a champion, but my old pal of the Whiteman days, Eddie Lang, used to take most of his salary away from him at the game. Like a lot of the other fellows Eddie hooked, Joe was never able to get rid of the illusion that he could beat him. He never did. More than once their games ended with Joe ripping up the green baize cloth with his pool cue, breaking the cue in half, throwing the balls through the window, and leaving in a huff, considerably poorer for his experience."
Elsewhere in his autobiography, Bing likened Eddie's sportsmanship to that of another friend, champion golfer Ben Hogan: "Ben makes me think of him. Anything Ben tries to do he does well. I've had Ben up to my ranch in Elko. He can shoot better than anybody I ever knew, with either a scatter gun or rifle. He can ride, brand, fix fence. He can run the equipment and repair tractors. And although Ben had a lot more education than Eddie had, Eddie was the same kind of fellow. Eddie never read the newspapers but he always seemed to know what was going on in the way of current or sporting events."
In later years, Bing expanded upon Eddie's pool prowess in his official biography: "He was making, in New York on radio and recording dates, probably five or six hundred dollars a week and I couldn't afford to pay him much more than that. When I broached the subject, he was very keen about it and I discovered why a little later. We opened in Cleveland and after the first matinee he disappeared. He didn't come back till show time, about six in the evening, played the show, then disappeared again. I found he was going over to the local pool hall - in those days they used to have big gambling in pool - and playing some of the local guys who figured they were pretty good, He'd allow himself to get licked a little - lose some sums of money, ten, fifteen dollars - and then during the last three days he'd pull out his 'A game' and pick up four of five hundred dollars. He was delighted to come out on the road, because everybody knew him around the pool halls in New York and he couldn't make any money there. He always dressed very nice and looked like a librarian or something - the last guy in the world you'd think would play brilliant pool."
Ed spoke to me about Eddie's wife, Kitty: "She was a Ziegfeld girl who played ukulele and was a dancer. Prior to New York, she performed in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. When they were not on the road the couple, who got married in 1926, lived on the west side in Manhattan. Kitty became very good friends with Bing's wife Dixie."
Giddins had access to Kitty's unpublished memoir, in which she recounted memories of meeting Bing: "Eddie and I were with Jimmy Dorsey and his wife Janey. Bing came over to our table and sat down for a few minutes. He was a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, a perfect gentleman at all times, though he had had a few drinks. Eddie told me afterwards that he believed this guy Bing would go places as he had everything going for him once he settled down to business."
Kitty also recalled her time spent with Bing's wife Dixie while on tour: "Every town we went to, we were alone most of the time due to rehearsals and shows the boys were doing. We only saw them at dinner or after the last show at evening. Bing and Eddie spent off-hours shooting pool, playing cards, and talking music. Kitty referred to her husband as Bing's good luck charm and wrote of Eddie's impact upon his buddy. Bing always listened to Eddie's advice as to how to sing certain phrases in a tune."
Speaking of cards, Ed Massaro reveals that Eddie was a world-class pinochle player.
Going Hollywood and Points Beyond
"Bing obtained the accompaniment of Eddie Lang and proved his desire to take his friend and adviser along with him as he soared up in the entertainment world." —Ted Crosby, The Story of Bing Crosby
Everett's ultimate dream for his brother came true when, on March 4, 1932, Bing signed a $300,000 five-picture deal with Paramount. The first film made for the studio that he would come to dominate over the following years 25 years would be The Big Broadcast, which went into production in July. This groundbreaking musical is about a failing radio station, owned by the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and their scheme of an all-star revue to revive it. Although several on-the air luminaries such as Kate Smith, Cab Calloway, and The Boswell Sisters perform, it is Bing who headlines the bill, acting the role of a crooner not unlike himself.
Indeed, truth and fiction are so interchangeable that Eddie, hired at Bing's insistence, accompanies him on "Dinah," a chestnut that the two had recorded in December with The Mills Brothers. They also join forces on a new composition, "Please," in which the guitarist appears on camera, playing in both a rehearsal scene as well as in the grand finale of the extravaganza where he shadows Bing serenading his lady, wryly named "Mona Lowe," a play on a song title harking back to that 1928 Old Gold performance. This fascinating footage is the only filmed audio record of the dynamic rapport they shared.
Bing Sings Dinah
Bing Sings "Please" in The Big Broadcast
With The Big Broadcast under wraps, Bing required some down time. His long-held ambition was to catch a swordfish so he gathered a crew, which consisted of Eddie, Lennie Hayton, and film star Lew Ayres. They abandoned the quest after sailing for 18 days along the Mexican coast on a well-stocked vessel, "The Kamika." Soon after disembarking, Bing advanced his phenomenal recording career. Eddie was present on many Brunswick milestones. Here are a few representative selections.
Bing officially recorded "Please" in San Francisco on September 16, 1932 with Anson Weeks Orchestra. The presence of Eddie's stylized finger work, which underscores Bing's intricate whistling, helped to ensure that this would become his biggest hit up to that time. In his 1954 five-disc Musical Autobiography, Bing reflected on this classic with these words. I remember this record particularly because of Eddie Lang's great guitar work. The recurring use of the title throughout the song intrigued Beatle John Lennon who had the clever lyrical device in mind when composing "Please, Please Me."
On the same day as The Big Broadcast held its premiere simultaneously at The New York and Brooklyn Paramount Theaters on October 14, 1932, Bing recorded "Here Lies Love," another composition from the film. The sparsely despondent background that Eddie supplies during Bing's rendition of the verse compliments his lament.
Recorded on November 4, 1932 in New York, "Someday We'll Meet Again" shows how far Bing's vocal sensitivity had developed, in sync with Eddie's almost telepathic accompaniment. The exchange between Eddie's minimalist touch with Joe Venuti's dark tones makes this a heartbreaker for the ages.
"Street of Dreams," a recording made in New York on December 9, 1932, is enhanced by Eddie's filigree fingering in counterpoint with Tommy Dorsey's pensive trombone. The song's lyric obliquely connotes the drug trade prevalent in the blue light districts of Manhattan.
Contrasting the sublime with the ridiculous is "We're A Couple of Soldiers," recorded on October 25, 1932 in New York. Bing would have been the first to admit that this was mawkish fare, but he sings it with a straight voice. A naughty blow-up version that has surfaced is an all- together different matter. At around two minutes and fifteen seconds in, Bing is unable to suppress his derision of the song once Joe Venuti gives Eddie one of his notorious raspberries, albeit subdued, in response to his striking an unsure chord. What ensues might be the most sustained hysteria in recording history as Bing tries unsuccessfully to stifle his laughter before completely breaking down in guffaws. With his rude closing ad-lib, we're a couple of nances, Uncle Salvi and me. Station House! Bing references Eddie's baptismal name, and the place all-too-familiar to him where errant musicians wind up. There is no more glaring representation of irreverent jazz era mischief than this.
On September 25, Bing and Eddie were guests on The Union Oil/Dominoes Radio Show, broadcast from station KFI in California. The program's song line-up comprised some of the team's current fare, as well as Eddie's own creation, "Feeling My Way." Announcer Jack Sheehan introduces with these words. Now folks, we have a novelty tonight. Eddie Lang, Mr. Crosby's accompanist, will play an original number on his guitar. Here is Eddie's recording of that composition, played in duet with Carl Kress, in a more brisk version than the one heard on the air.
By the way, Feeling My Way is the name of a complete Lang discography compiled in 2002 by Raymond F. Mitchell.
On January 4, 1933, Bing returned to a regular broadcast grind with a new six-day-a-week CBS series, Music That Satisfies, sponsored by Chesterfield Cigarettes and emanating from New York. Once again, Lennie Hayton led the orchestra. Of course, Eddie was on hand. Around this time, Bing had a diagnosis that in time he would most likely deem to have been rather portentous. Dr. Ruskin, Bing's vocal physician, discovered a node on Bing's larynx that he determined would improve his timbre. With much fanfare, Lloyds of London insured Bing's voice for $100,000. "You've Got Me Crying Again," recorded in New York on February 9, exhibits this enrichment, which Eddie's sympathetic background reinforces.
By now, The Big Broadcast was sweeping up at the box office. This factor fortified the new movie idol to make a demand of Paramount that would come to have the direst unforeseen repercussions. Bing, eager to have once again his alter ego's reassuring on-camera presence, and wishing to further the guitarist's exposure, made it clear that he wanted the studio to assign Eddie a speaking role in his next film venture, College Humor. During a snag in the negotiations, Bing, Eddie, and Lennie Hayton resumed their swordfish odyssey, this time off the coast of San Diego. This ploy of "going fishing" would always prove successful for Bing. Upon their return, studio heads agreed to lucrative terms for Eddie, who would now be garnering $15,000 dollars per Crosby picture, on top of a salary of $1000 a week while on tour, making him the highest paid sideman in the country. Eddie, however, grew apprehensive at the prospect of tackling dialogue. This was due to his raspy voice, which was the result of recurring bouts with acid reflux disease and laryngitis. For the time being, the rigors of vaudeville served as a distraction.
Bing and Eddie were unwitting agents of destiny when they kept an engagement from March 3-9 at Loew's Journal Square Theater in Jersey City. There was in the audience one night a young man, Francis Albert Sinatra by name. In her book, Frank Sinatra: An American Legend, Nancy Sinatra quoted her father: "After seeing him that night, I knew I had to be a singer. Nancy's mother fleshed out the scene. It was a very exciting evening for both of us, but for Frank it was the biggest moment of his life. Bing had always been his hero, and he had listened to all his records, but watching him perform in person seemed to make it all come alive for him. I mean, he loved to sing; he'd sing at parties, he'd sing for me all the time, and he used to take me along on some of his appearances around town. But I don't think he really believed it would really happen for him, until that night. 'Someday,' he told me on the way home, 'that's gonna be me up there.'"
Following Jersey City, Bing and Eddie topped the bill once again at New York's Capitol Theater from March 10-16. Broadway columnist Ed Sullivan mentioned hearing them perform Cole Porter's "Night and Day" during this run. Subsequently, they played The Valencia Theater in Queens, New York from March 17-23.
A Sudden Change of Fortune
"His was one of the finest and most likable personalities I have ever known. As a musician he was, I believe, head and shoulders above anyone else in his profession, and yet in spite of his widely known name and high reputation, Eddie retained a shy modesty that won him the friendship and admiration of everyone." —Kitty Lang, Whom the Gods Love Die Young (unpublished).
After the week at The Valencia, Bing prepared to go to California by train to join his wife Dixie. She was close to six months pregnant and wanted to have their first child at home. Dixie had chosen to travel by ship with her friend, film actress Sue Carol (the future Mrs. Alan Ladd) by way of the Panama Canal, with a sightseeing stopover in Cuba. Kitty decided to join her on the voyage but postponed her plans.
The delay took place because Eddie finally resolved to accommodate his looming film career. Encouraged by Bing, he would have a tonsillectomy. As stated by Eddie's nephew, Bing said, "Eddie, you got to have your voice taken care of."
Eddie was very skeptical of doctors. Nevertheless, they assuaged him with their assurances that this would be a routine procedure. Eddie agreed to undergo the operation on March 26.
Eddie was calm enough that he entered a billiards tournament at The Friar's Club, the famous theatrical gathering spot at 57 East 55 Street in New York. After winning the championship, he joined Bing for the Saturday, March 25 broadcast of Music That Satisfies. Astonishingly, this is the only episode of the series that survives, archived at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in New York, a bequest from the Lennie Hayton estate.
Announcer Norman Brokenshire began the half-hour with words that would soon acquire a painful irony: "How do you do, Ladies and Gentlemen, How do you do. Let's all forget about the week just past. Let's begin a happy weekend. It's Chesterfield Time! Yes sir, the natural, carefree singing of Bing Crosby is just what we've been waiting for."
Among the selections that fateful night was "What Do I Care, It's Home," which Bing had just cut in New York with Eddie at their February 9 session. This would be their final recording date. Eddie's sensitive playing transforms this lachrymose song into poetry.
"What Do I Care, It's Home"
Ed Massaro points out that Eddie was planning to visit his sister in Philadelphia for her birthday on March 28. On the morning of Sunday March 26, Eddie entered Park West Hospital at 170 West 76th Street in Manhattan. Kitty's manuscript renders Eddie's casual state of mind: "As he was wheeled into the elevator, Eddie asked her to buy a racing form so he could pick a winner on Monday."
Eddie would never place the bet.
A clinical account of what transpired is laid out in a paper entitled "Jazz and Otolaryngology: The Death of Guitarist Eddie Lang" by laryngologist Dr. David L. Mandell.
Presumably, general anesthesia was used. Lang’s wife Kitty was present in the hospital at the time of the operation. In the immediate postoperative period, the operation appeared to have been a success. The surgeon reportedly left, stating that everything had gone well. Kitty Lang recalls being told by the doctor that Eddie had been given a sedative and would sleep for a while. According to one published reference, Kitty left to get something to eat, and on her return found that Eddie Lang had died. However, in another source, Kitty claims that, despite the doctor telling her to go home and come back later, she remained at Eddie Lang’s bedside throughout the entire postoperative period, waiting for him to awaken and see her.
Eddie Lang never woke up. According to Kitty, after a nurse checked Lang’s pulse around 5 pm, a doctor was rapidly called, and Kitty was escorted out of the room, being told soon thereafter that Eddie had died. Bing Crosby, who reportedly had been at the nearby Friar’s Club, rushed to the hospital after being notified of Lang’s death. According to Kitty, “when Bing found out, he cried in my arms like a baby.
Here is the harrowing account as expressed in Giddins' biography: "When Eddie came out of surgery, the doctor told Kitty he was fine but heavily sedated and suggested she go home. She refused, and remained by his bed for hours with a racing form in her lap, comforted by a nurse who told her that patients often slept that long. At 5 pm, the nurse took his pulse and raced from the room. An oxygen machine was wheeled in, but he had hemorrhaged and it was too late. 'I must have screamed, for I remember hearing a child start screaming, too, and realized that it was someone down the hall and that I must not frighten this child,' Kitty recalled. A doctor gave her an injection, and she felt her throat constrict until she could not speak. 'Someone must have called Bing on the phone, he was at The Friar's Club. Needless to say, he came right over and into the waiting room, He fell on his knees with his head in my lap and started to sob, 'Kitty, he was my best friend,'"
In Ed Massaro's own succinct words, "My uncle died from a blood clot and drowned in his own blood."
Once the news broke of Eddie's death, the radio networks marked the solemn occasion with a moment of broadcast silence. On March 29, Bing returned to broadcasting Music That Satisfies. He must have had difficulty stifling his sorrow while singing the opening song, "Have You Ever Been Lonely? (Have You Ever Been Blue?)."
Ed Massaro depicted for me the funeral proceedings which took place the very next day: "My father, Tom Massaro, oversaw the arrangements. My uncle's body was transported to Philadelphia, where the funeral was held on Thursday, March 30. There were more than 20,000 guests. Ruth Etting's husband, Norman 'The Gimp' Snider, controlled the overflowing traffic. Bing rode to the funeral in the lead car with Joe Venuti. When he arrived, he was mobbed. My grandfather was still in a state of shock at the funeral. Bing paid for the tombstone."
Giddins' report lays bare the tumultuous circumstances: "Kitty waived the autopsy. Eddie's father Tom paced the floor for days while Kitty sat in a trance. She lost thirty pounds. 'I remember someone touching my shoulder and telling me that Bing had arrived to take me to the funeral. Poor dear Bing, my heart went out to this great man who was sitting on top of the world as the greatest singer the world had ever known, and yet he lost the one companion who had been instrumental in putting him there.' The service was hell for Bing, his first taste of the madness of celebrity. He was accustomed to autograph seekers in person and through letters; these he efficiently answered. At Eddie's service, people closed in on him and turned the ceremony into a circus. In their haste, 'just to touch him,' in Kitty's words, they overturned pews and the appalled priest was forced to implore mourners to take their seats. Bing was already phobic about hospitals and doctors, but this was unendurable, an intrusion on his and the family's grief, and he resolved never to let it happen again. A welterweight named Marty Collins volunteered to
protect Bing, who was impressed with his manner and effectiveness."
There was now a gaping hole in Bing's life. One can hardly grasp the devastation that engulfed him at this time, coming less than 20 months after his friend Bix Beiderbecke's untimely demise from pneumonia and alcoholism. Joe Venuti, who remained close to Bing and who became a fixture on his radio shows well into the fifties, told Barry Ulanov that Bing was "absolutely wrecked."
Eddie's nephew believes that Bing internalized his conflicting emotions. Writing more than 20 years later in his autobiography, Bing seems to have attained a measure of stoic acceptance, instilled in him by his Jesuit upbringing: "He had a chronically inflamed sore throat and felt bad for a year or 18 months before his death. He mistrusted doctors and medicine. Like many people who came from backgrounds similar to his and who had no experience with doctors or hospitals, he had an aversion to them. But his throat was so bad and it affected his health to such a point that I finally talked him into seeing a doctor. Many times afterward I wished I hadn't. The doctor advised a tonsillectomy. And Eddie never came out from under the general anesthetic they gave him. I don't think they use a general anesthetic now for adults. As I understand it, for an operation of that kind, the patient is anesthetized locally so his respiration isn't affected. Anyhow Eddie developed an embolism and died without gaining consciousness. It was a great blow. I not only lost a valuable associate in the entertainment business, I lost a valued personal friend I had fun with and who was loyal to me throughout all of the years we were associated. I've often thought if I hadn't recommended that treatment he'd still be around. On the other hand, if he hadn't had it, the infection might have gone into his blood stream and the same thing would have happened that did happen."
Life after Eddie
"My Uncle was on the brink of an incredible future with Bing." —Ed Massaro
Giddins relates a tender scene that took place soon after the funeral: "Afterward, when Bing and Kitty had a moment alone, he asked her to Los Angeles to stay with him and Dixie, promising her a home as long as she wanted. Dixie was expecting in June. They needed her, he said. Kitty joined them in April. And Bing looked out for her all his life. But a part of Bing died with Eddie."
When Leo Lynn, a colleague from Bing's alma mater Gonzaga College reentered Bing's life during the spring filming of College Humor, he helped to fill the void, fulfilling the function of counterpart and companion.
The solace that Bing offered to Kitty must have provided him with a degree of therapy. Still, the atmosphere must have been tense in the Crosby household in the Toluca Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. In Kitty's memory, they never spoke about the tragedy. She found needed distraction in helping Dixie with preparations for the birth of Gary Crosby, born on June 27. Kitty rushed into the hospital waiting room and informed Bing of the delivery. Gary Giddins found this revealing passage in her journal: "He was so happy. It was good to see him smile again."
On July 13, 1934, Dixie gave birth to twin sons, Dennis and Philip, with the latter reverentially bestowed the middle name of Lang.
Ed Massaro recalled that after World War II Kitty married Joe Good, Bing's ranch foreman at his Elko, Nevada ranch. She would become good friends with the mentalist known as "The Amazing Kreskin" while working as a seamstress at a casino in Las Vegas. Bing did not stay in contact with Ed's father, Tom Massaro. They met for the first and only time since the funeral at a golf exhibit at a Philadelphia Country Club in the late thirties.
There has long been speculation that, had Eddie lived, Bing's work would have been more strongly infused with jazz. In truth, Bing never wanted to remain in any one particular grove, as his prolific output manifestly proves. In the aftermath of Eddie's death, Bing immersed himself in work more than ever at this crucial point in his career. Even though he curtailed his personal appearances, his burgeoning movie career placed enormous demands on him that continued for decades to come. Of course, he still needed a staff guitarist for his wide-ranging recording and broadcast regimens. In his Lang obituary, Ed Sullivan speculated that the talk among New York City musicians was that Bing might choose Carl Kress or Dick McDonough. In 1934 Bing made a few outstanding recordings showcasing guitarist Bobby Sherwood, and promoted his diverse talents. For a while it appeared that Sherwood would take on the Lang mantle, but this was not to be.
Bing must have found it propitious that it was Kitty who recommended Perry Botkin, the artist who became her husband's steady successor. Perry Botkin had played with Phil Napoleon's Original Memphis Five, and then became a prodigious session man with, among others, Victor Young and Red Nichols. Botkin was an early advocate of the Rickenbacker Vibrola Spanish Electric guitar. Gary Giddins maintains that Botkin started to occupy the Lang chair on some of the Brunswick sides that Bing made after a nearly three-month respite imposed during his mourning. Commencing In 1937 and continuing for the better part of two decades, Botkin steadily furnished Bing with guitar accompaniment on hundreds of recordings, both within large orchestral settings , and with his own string band. Botkin, a hefty man to whom Bing gave the moniker "Big Body," appeared with him in the film Birth of the Blues, released in 1941.
Perry Jr, a well-regarded singer, arranger, and composer, supplied these comments for this article: "Dad had a great deal of respect for Eddie. I am sure he was honored to be his replacement with Bing. He spent the next 17 years as Bing’s guitar accompanist and music supervisor. As a kid I joined dad at some of the Crosby radio shows. Because of his great banjo playing he had a spectacular right hand. Played great rhythm. I loved to watch him play his Gibson L-5."
Bucky Pizzarelli, elder statesman of the guitar, once told me during an interview what befell Botkin's L-5: "I knew Bing's guitarist Perry Botkin quite well. I remember Perry's son wanted to acquire his father's guitar when he died. Do you know that Gene Autry beat him to it! As Perry Jr. discloses, Dad's L-5 still resides on display at the Gene Autry Museum."
The museum also houses Botkin's Gibson lap steel guitar. Botkin would occasionally record with the fabled "Public Cowboy Number One."
Perry Jr. has provided this link to a video homage, with his father's own spoken reminiscences.
Bing & Les Paul
Fortune's wheel took another astonishing turn in 1943 when Bing, in the company of Leo Lynn, encountered an aspiring guitarist, Les Paul. Les manipulated Bing into overhearing his trio perform an "impromptu" audition at the NBC studios where his self-proclaimed idol broadcast his weekly Kraft Music Hall. In a 2008 interview, Les told me the genesis of his inspired machinations.
"I heard him in 1929 -1930 – his first broadcast," said Les. "I loved him. I loved his guitar player Eddie Lang because I was very interested in playing the guitar and who could you pick better than whom Bing picked. That was Eddie Lang. So I loved him and followed him and I listened to him and as I progressed I left home when I was 13, and I ended up in St. Louis and between broadcasts I would go over to the theater to see The Big Broadcast. So consequently I carried this love for Bing right straight through my career until I ended up in New York and working with Fred Waring five nights a week broadcasting twice a night with him. One day I walked into Fred Waring and said, 'I’m leaving.' He said, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'I’m going with Bing.' He said, 'I knew someone was going to grab you. Tell me how it happened.' I said, 'It hasn’t happened. Bing has never heard of me.'"
Les' bravura demonstration overwhelmed Bing. He asked him on the spot to be his personal guitarist, reserving him for professional assignments, private functions and just to pal around.
Les' trio accompanied Bing on several recordings, most significantly the million seller, "It's Been a Long, Long Time." He also frequently joined Bing on broadcasts heard during 1946-47 on the new ABC network. This was Bing's seminal, first transcribed season on the air, made possible by his espousal of magnetic tape. Les was an immediate beneficiary of this high-fidelity technology. When Les purchased an early Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder, he applied the machine to develop multitracking, thereby achieving a long-held dream. Bing encouraged and financed Les' elaborate studio where he perfected his revolutionary Gibson electric guitar. By becoming friends, Bing must have at least partially overcome the loss of Eddie, and Les found a catalyst for new stages of his extraordinary career. Les signified his close ties to Bing by identifying one of his most cherished possessions: "Bing gave me Eddie Lang’s St. Christopher medal. I still have that." (Excerpts from my conversation with Les Paul appear in the July, August and September 2015 issues of Guitar Player.)
Lou Pallo, Les' close friend and colleague who now leads The Les Paul Trio, shared these comments for this piece: "Eddie was way ahead of his time. Les learned from Eddie and he loved Bing."
Final Years & Collaborators
During that first season on the newly born ABC network Bing bonded with guitarist Dave Barbour who at the time was married to Peggy Lee, one of his regular radio guests. Bing's occasional broadcast recordings with the couple further emphasize his penchant for the instrument, as do his contemporaneous recordings with Eddie Condon's Orchestra.
Bing was shattered when Dixie succumbed to cancer in 1952. The mob scene that took place at her funeral echoed the frenzy surrounding Eddie's service. Bing would stipulate in his will that his family hold his rites before dawn - where the blue of the night meets the dawn of the day - and keep them strictly private. Bing wed movie actress Kathryn Grant in 1957. Their marriage, and the three children they had together, gave him a new lease on life. Nevertheless, as Kathryn once told me, Bing never quite got over Eddie's death.
In 1954 Bing and Perry Botkin parted ways. Vince Terri, one of the most sought-after studio guitarists of his day, replaced Botkin in the quartet, led by pianist Buddy Cole, which Bing was now using on his downsized radio show. The scores of recordings that they made found Bing returning to his jazz roots, with Eddie most likely never far from his thoughts. (Mosaic Records issued in 2009 The Bing Crosby CBS Radio Recordings, a comprehensive seven-disc collection of the majority of this massive catalogue. The accompanying booklet contains my essay, "Bing Crosby and his Media Revolution.")
Bing continued to record throughout the 1960s, but by the early '70s, he somewhat reduced these endeavors, focusing rather on a great amount of television appearances which burnished his popularity. In late 1973, Bing was hospitalized with a rare lung fungus, necessitating the removal of two-fifths of his left lung. The operation saved his life. Still, there was concern that Bing would never sing again. Despite the innate dread of hospitals and physicians to which Giddins alludes, Bing remained sanguine during and his convalescence and made an amazing recovery.
Soon thereafter, Bing ruminated on his illustrious career with his biographer Charles Thompson, and in the process, reaffirmed his awe for Eddie which may have sustained him throughout his health crisis: "He had a tremendous ear and he had a stroke on the guitar that nobody had employed up until that time. It was a marvelous accompaniment to sing a rhythm song to. It just made you feel like you wanted to ride and go. If he heard a thing once, he could play it-he never read music very well. His style was unique and other guitar players really looked up to him. They couldn't understand how he did it."
Ed Massaro brought attention to a fleeting illustration of the effect his uncle continued to have on Bing. In a segment from the November 12, 1975 installment of Dinah Shore's daytime TV show, the host plays for Bing a fragment of his 1932 hit, "Please.'' After singing along a bit, Bing poignantly exclaims, "And on the guitar, the immortal Eddie Lang." In an instant, his face suddenly turns from carefree to introspective, as more than 40 years dissolve and memories of Eddie momentarily take hold. Bing quickly recovers with a quip about the recording, and in so doing, hints at his state of mind hearing the strains of Eddie's guitar, silenced so long ago. That was my lugubrious period. Ed Massaro vividly recalls his father taking comfort in watching this epiphany, which occurs about five minutes into the clip.
Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Pat Boone and Phil Harris
By the time of this appearance, Bing had already begun to revitalize his recording career with a line-up of impressive albums. He had also made the stunning decision to return to a schedule of live performances. Conceivably, thoughts of Eddie motivated him to get back into the swing of things, to once again ride and go and to recapture the halcyon days on the road with his friend. Bing convened Joe Bushkin's Jazz Quartet, and in the process lured Lang devotee Johnny Smith from his Colorado retreat. Bing seemed rejuvenated as they traveled for nearly two years throughout the United States and Great Britain, along with Rosemary Clooney, the Crosby family, a comic and a full orchestra. The entire show was, in many ways, a throwback to the old days of vaudeville, or say, the bill of fare at The Capitol or The Paramount. How gratifying it must have been for Bing that his young son Harry, whom he would drolly introduce as "the poet of the guitar," would accompany him on stage.
Before a triumphal fortnight at The London Palladium, Bing and "the fellas" gave a rousing impromptu concert on August 25, 1977 at an airport stopover in Norway.
Bing Crosby Live In Oslo, Norway 1977
While in London, Bing made plans for future LPs with his producer, Ken Barnes. Barnes disclosed perhaps the most tantalizing of these in his article, "The Real Bing Crosby," which appeared in Going My Way: Bing Crosby and American Culture. This compendium came into being as a consequence of Hofstra University's 2002 Crosby Centennial Conference.
"Bing recorded his last commercial sessions in London on the mornings of September 12, 13, and 14, 1977," said Barnes. "We also discussed a project that would reunite him with jazz violin virtuoso, Joe Venuti. 'We'll need a good guitar player on that one,' said Bing, obviously harking back to the early days of Venuti and Eddie Lang. 'How About Les Paul?' I asked. 'Now you're talking,' he smiled."
In the course of my 2008 interview with Les, he confirmed that Bing wanted to get back to work with him. Les even tape recorded their discussions, from which he remembered this exchange: "We can make this thing in nothing flat. We'll just have a hell of a time talking about the good old days. Would you do it? And Bing said, 'Sure!'"
Memories of Eddie must have consumed Bing as he envisioned this reunion, never fulfilled. On October 14, 1977 Bing suffered a fatal heart attack after winning two rounds of golf in Spain.
As a token of their friendship, Bing gave Eddie a matching star sapphire onyx pinkie ring. Eddie cherished this gift, and constantly wore this emblem of the bond forged between them when their paths intertwined at the cusp of a golden era. Together they ushered in a new sound in American popular music, and along the way placed their stamp on each other's soul. Moving forward, one evolved into the personification, the very embodiment of his instrument. The other matured into America's Troubadour. Though they passed this way but once, their harmony is everlasting.
Martin McQuade is Research Consultant and Writer of Liner Notes for Bing Crosby Enterprises, Curator of Exhibition Bing's Diversity On Display (Part of Hofstra University's 2002 Bing Crosby Centennial Conference), Curator The Film Society of Lincoln Center's 2005 Retrospective What A Swell Party! A Tribute To Bing Crosby, Correspondent Bing Magazine, published by the International Club Crosby.
He wishes to express appreciation to Eddie Lang's nephew Ed Massaro, Marty Grosz, Alan Cary, Richard Barnes, Glenn Crytzer, Perry Botkin, Jr., Crosby scholar Fred Romary, James Layton of the Museum of Modern Art Film Department.
Bing Crosby Recordings Featuring Eddie Lang
1) Mississippi Mud 1/20/28 (Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra)
(There are many experts who claim that this recording features Carl Kress on guitar, rather than Lang)
2) The Spell of The Blues 1/26/29
3) Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love 1/26/29 4) My Kinda Love 1/26/29
(2-4 The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra)
5) I Kiss Your Hand, Madame 5/24/29
6) Baby, Oh Where Can You Be? 5/24/29
(5-6 Instrumental Trio)
7) At Twilight 9/6/29
8) Waiting at The End of the Road 9/13/29
9) When You're Counting the Stars Alone 9/13/29
10) I'm a Dreamer, Aren't We All? 10/16/29
11) If I Had a Talking Picture of You 10/16/29
12) Moonlight and Roses 10/18/29
13) Southern Medley 10/18/29
14) A Bundle of Old Love Letters 10/18/29
15) After You've Gone 10/18/29
16) Happy Feet 2/10/30
17) A Song of the Dawn 3/21/30
18) A Bench in the Park 3/21/30
19) Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight 3/22/30 20) I Like To Do Things for You 3/23/30
21) You Brought a New Kind of Love To Me 3/23/30
(7-21 Paul Whiteman Orchestra)
22) I Apologize 8/19/31
23) Dancing in the Dark 8/19/31 24) Stardust 8/19/31
(22-24 Brunswick Studio Orchestra)
25) I'm Through With Love 9/2/31 26) Just One More Chance 9/2/31
￼(25 -26 CBS Studio Orchestra -transcribed from Bing's first solo broadcast, in later years mastered by RCA)
27) Sweet And Lovely 9/14/31
28) Now That You're Gone 10/6/31
29) A Faded Summer Love 10/6/31
30) Gems from George White's Scandals 10/25/31 with The Boswell Sisters
31) Where the Blue of the Night Meets The Gold of the Day 11/23/31
32) I'm Sorry Dear 12/3/31
33) Dinah 12/16/31 w/The Mills Brothers
34) Snuggled on Your Shoulder 1/21/32
35) Starlight (Help Me Find the One I Love) 2/16/32
36) How Long Will It Last? 2/16/32
37) Love, You Funny Thing 2/23/32
38) My Woman 2/23/32
39) Shine 2/29/32 with The Mills Brothers
40) Paradise 3/15/32
41) You're Still In My Heart 3/15/32
(27-41 Brunswick Studio Orchestra)
42) Sweet Georgia Brown 4/23/32 43) Waltzing in a Dream 4/23/32 44) Happy Go Lucky You 4/23/32 45) Lazy Day 4/24/32
46) Let's Try Again 4/24/32 (42-46 Isham Jones Orchestra)
47) Cabin in the Cotton 5/25/32
48) With Summer Coming On 5/25/32 49) Love Me Tonight 5/26/32
50) Some Of These Days 5/26/32
(47-50 Brunswick Studio Orchestra Led by Frankie Trumbauer)
51) Please 9/16/32
Anson Weeks Orchestra
52) How Deep Is the Ocean? 10/14/32
53) Here Lies Love 10/14/32
54) A Ghost of a Chance 10/14/32
55) Linger a Little Longer in the Twilight 10/25/32
55) We're a Couple of Soldiers (My Baby and Me) 10/25/32 56) Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? 10/25/32
57) Just an Echo In The Valley 11/4/32 58) Someday We'll Meet Again 11/4/32 59) Street of Dreams 12/9/32
60) It's Within Your Power 12/9/32 61) I'm Playing With Fire 1/9/33
62) Try a Little Tenderness 1/9/33
63) What Do I Care, It's Home 2/9/33 64) You've Got Me Crying Again 2/9/33
(52-64 Brunswick Studio Orchestra)
Crosby, Bing, Call Me Lucky: Bing Crosby's Own Story, Simon & Schuster; 1953
Crosby, Ted, The Story of Bing Crosby, World Publishing Co.; 1946
Giddins, Gary, Bing Crosby A Pocketful of Dreams The Early Years, 1903-1940, Little, Brown, & Co.; 2001
Hadlock, Richard, Jazz Masters of the '20s, DaCapo Press; 1988
Macfarlane, Malcolm, Bing Crosby: Day By Day, Scarecrow Press; 2001
Pairpoint, Lionel, "And Here's Bing!" Bing Crosby: The Radio Directories, International Crosby Circle; 2000
Prigozy, Ruth, Raubicheck, Walter, editors, Going My Way: Bing Crosby and American Culture, University of Rochester Press; 2007 (This volume contains my essay, "Bing Crosby's Magnetic Tape Revolution," which Ampex historian Pete Hammar co-authored.)
Sudhalter, Richard, et al., Bix: Man and Legend, Arlington House; 1974
Thompson, Charles, Bing: The Authorized Biography, David McKay, Company; 1975
Ulanov, Barry, The Incredible Crosby, Whittlesey House; 1948
Wiggins, F.B. (Wig); Reilly, Jim, The Definitive Bing Crosby Discography, The International Club Crosby; 2014
Alger, Dean "Remembering Lonnie Jonson" Guitar Player, January 2014
Crosby, Bing "Mutual Liking of Spaghetti Made Eddie & Bing Pals", DownBeat, May 1939
Trumbauer, Frankie "Eddie Didn't Use Music; He Had It In His Pocket," DownBeat, 1939
Mandell, David L. "Jazz and Otolaryngology: The Death of Guitarist Eddie Lang", Laryngoscope, November 2001 (Volume 111)